Hello, Aspen? East Hampton Calling

The death of Main Street is old news. It croaked long ago. Anyone with their eyes open was already getting pretty freaked out about the fate of mom-and-pop shops, oh, you know, 30 years ago. I personally have been ranting about all this since I was an angry adolescent and Whimsey’s lost its lease; every time I step over the threshold of Hildreth’s or the Candy Kitchen I cross myself  and whisper a soft prayer. Frankly, I’m a bore on this subject.

We’re all bores on this subject. And where has complaining gotten us? It’s not the politicians’ fault. The hands of those who run village governments are tied, as far as subsidizing locally owned enterprises might go; as the mayor of East Hampton said at a board gathering in 2017, “We’re not in the business of governing business.”

Who ya gonna call? 

Well, actually, we have an idea.

We raise our sun hats in tribute to those stalwart, small-scale retailers who have stuck it out through thick and thin: the hardware stores, Top Drawer Lingerie, the Party Shop, Obligato, Gubbins: We salute you! But the paucity of more stores  like that — stores that serve any purpose to anyone save the global parent corporation’s marketing executives — isn’t even a crisis anymore, because a crisis is a new pinnacle of emergency. This is a festering plight, eating away at our community.

This summer, East magazine is proposing a new way of framing the problem: Look to towns similar to ours, where it isn’t suburban sprawl that has choked Main Street, but, counterintuitively, wealth. Think about it: A typical Main Street, U.S.A., has been strangled by a surrounding ring of strip malls and superstores. Out here, we don’t have many big-box stores. Our Main Streets are the way they are — tumbleweeds in winter, crowds milling around but not buying anything other than ice cream cones in summer — because of high real estate values and high rents. We’ve coined a phrase for this phenomenon: luxury blight. And, no, luxury blight isn’t the landlords’ fault, either. The fault is a failure of our imagination.

Recently, East began calling resort towns that might face similar challenges, to see if any of them have come up with any actual, practical solutions. Yes, literally, we are phoning them. We’re working our way down a call list as I type this: Aspen, Colorado. Greenwich, Connecticut. Woodstock, Vermont. Nantucket, Massachusetts. . . .  Over the summer, we will be giving you updates on this research and will keep you posted on our progress. (Who knows? Maybe we’ll have to invite our new friends for a Luxury Blight Summit. Kennebunkport can bring the lobster, Ojai can bring the wine.)

And guess what? In April, we had our first eureka! moment when we learned of a nonprofit called reMAIN Nantucket that fosters Main Street community by buying buildings, renovating them, and making them home to cafés, bakeries, artisan galleries — the sorts of small businesses that bring people together and that serve real-life needs. Hey now, if Nantucket can do it, why can’t we? P.S.: Did you notice that the old dry-cleaning place is for sale on Newtown Lane? Just sayin’

Bess Rattray

After nearly two decades toiling in the Manhattan media trenches as an editor for Vogue magazine (followed by a few years' interlude as a volunteer firefighting captain in Nova Scotia), Bess Rattray returned home to East Hampton in 2015, and in 2017 took over as editor of The Star's magazine, EAST.